Arizona: Approaching the Cliff

Many of the cranks have already thrown themselves over, but even after the Nightmare in the Desert Saturday, losing to lowly Arizona 52-14, the more moderate, sane of us aren't throwing ourselves over the cliff -- yet, anyway...

This is when this job is really a bitch.

The rest of you can just turn off your television sets and go to your daughter's soccer game or go to a movie and essentially turn off UCLA football when something like this happens. You can get up the next morning, quickly throw out the sports page of the newspaper, have some coffee and a Krispy Kreme, and insulate yourself from any kind of outside Bruin influence for a while.

But I have to write about this mess of a game.

So, for those of you that are actually crazy enough to be reading this, here goes...

I have a pretty good analogy for the state of UCLA football fan right now.

There's this big cliff, see.

All of the cranks have already thrown themselves over, and their bodies lay broken on the rocks below (Actually, if you're a true crank you threw yourself over the cliff years ago anyway).

The cranks are thinking doomsday scenarios, that the team won't win another game. It will lose miserably to Arizona State, get so completely destroyed by Troy, and then lose to a mediocre team in a minor bowl game to never be talked about or heard from again. They'll finish 8-4, exactly where most of us predicted. They just took a roundabout way of getting there, and one that had a regrettable late-season collapse included.

Now, the true blues aren't even near the cliff. They're up in that nice restaurant that overlooks the cliff, having some nice, vintage wine, looking out over the view and marveling at how breathtaking it is. They, of course, are not the type that would ever think of throwing themselves off a cliff. The know that everything is good, that everything is okay, and that as long as you have faith in this UCLA team and the coaching staff everything is going to be fine. The Nightmare in the Desert, losing to the Wildcats in Tucson, 52-14, was just an aberration. The team will correct its issues and come back with a vengeance against Arizona State next week, then give USC a run for its money, and then finish off strong in a good bowl. They'll finish 10-2, elite recruits will jump on the bandwagon and Head Coach Karl Dorrell's program is on its way.

Now, the rest of us. we're out on that cliff. We haven't jumped off, and we're not really the type that would throw ourselves off either, but heck, sometimes the nice water lapping against the rocks down there looks inviting. We think about the doomsday scenario and shudder, deeply anxious about what losing the last four games of the season would do to the program, when it looked like Head Coach Karl Dorrell was starting to build something, and build some momentum in recruiting. We don't want to believe it, but if you had to choose between jumping over the cliff and going up to the restaurant to have a glass of wine, we can't, if we're going to be honest with ourselves, deny what all of the indicators are pointing toward with this team and the rest of the season.

So, most of us who are more grounded, and suffer from less bipolar symptoms, and tend to base our life on logical fact and clear-headed analysis, are actually closer to the cliff than we are the restaurant.

And here are the major points of that clear-headed analysis:

The same elements of this team that had gotten it successfully to 8-0 on some dramatic, late-game comebacks looks to be the same elements that could lead to its demise.

Widdling it down, this season has been based on the offense having to compensate for a bad defense and having to out-score its opponents, either throughout the game or dramatically do so in the fourth quarter. We said as early as fall camp that UCLA would have to out-score its opponents to be successful this season.

But what's happening now, and what has slowly been building this season, is that UCLA's offense is getting less and less effective, due to a couple of clear reasons. First, the offensive line play has gotten worse, due a great deal to injury. UCLA is without two starters, veteran center Mike McCloskey, which is a huge loss, and starting guard Chris Joseph. Those losses have definitely downgraded the level of play on the offensive line. While the line was probably just a little bit better than average even at full strength, it's now below average. UCLA's philosophy, too, is to get an edge in a game by executing so well, even if it's predictable, and wearing down defenses so that by the second half the offense is able to have its way with the defense. Being just a little better than average offensive line at full strength it was able to barely get over that in most of the early games. Now, it looks like losing those starters, particularly McCloskey, is enough to not get the UCLA offensive line over that hump in games.

The UCLA offensive philosophy, overall, is to execute so well that, even if it's predictable, an opposing defense won't be able to do anything about it. But with degrading line play, that philosophy starts to fall apart. Without superior execution, the predictability of the offense becomes entirely scoutable. Defenses start to look like they were sitting in the offense's meetings, which is how it's looked in the last two UCLA games. Drew Olson hands off the ball to Maurice Drew and there's not only not a hole, but there are four defenders in Drew's face before he even gets to the line of scrimmage. Opposing defenses – and opposing defensive coaches – know what UCLA's generally going to do most of the time, and now that UCLA's offense isn't executing well, it's very easy to defend against it.

Because of UCLA's poor defense, UCLA's success this season has been like a house of cards. When one element falls, the one collapses below it, and so on and so on. Without the offensive line being able to win an edge, the offense starts to lose its effectiveness. As the offense starts to lose its effectiveness, and is unable to stay on the field, eat up clock, score points and, most importantly, keep UCLA's defense off the field, the weight of the team then falls to the defense. And, the defense, being such a poor one, falls and the entire house collapses.

And that really was a defense collapsing in the Arizona game. UCLA allowed a poor Arizona offense to gain 519 yards and an astounding 315 yards running the ball. There were holes to run through that not only could you drive a truck through, but a convoy, side by side. Arizona running back Mike Bell was named player of the game – for what? I could have gained the 153 yards he did with those holes.

But we all knew this. If you had convinced yourself that this season's success wasn't a house of cards, then you were definitely fooling yourself. UCLA was doing it without a defense. It'd be interesting to find out when a team actually finished in the top ten at the end of the season with a defense that was among the 20 worst in the country, and a rushing defense that was among the worst five rushing defenses nationally. Not that it can't be done, but man, you really need to have a good offense and some incredible luck, which was what UCLA had had up to this point. The fact that they had done it for eight games was getting even cranks to believe they might be able to pull it off for, well, ten games. If UCLA had been able to keep the house of cards up for another two games and then had this kind of game against USC even the cranks might have excused it.

But the house collapsed a little too early. For cranks, they were probably amazed that it last this long.

What really proves the extent of how much this was a house of cards was the fact that it didn't happen against USC but the collapse came against Arizona, a team that is 2-6 and deservedly so. Arizona is not very talented, and they're young, thin and injured. But they looked like USC out there Saturday against UCLA. If you were an alien and just landed on this planet, and went to the UCLA/Arizona game Saturday, and you were told one of these teams was the fifth-ranked team in the country and one was one of the worst, you wouldn't have had any problem identifying which was which. Anyone who wants to criticize the job Head Coach Mike Stoops is doing at Arizona is crazy. He simply doesn't have much talent, while he has a pretty banged up, young team and is using a true freshman quarterback.

When it comes to UCLA coaching, we know who they are, what their philosophy is, and what their strengths and weaknesses are.

Dorrell and his staff are good, solid people, who will put together a very ethical, moral program. One that UCLA fans can be proud of.

Their offensive philosophy – that we're going to execute so well that it doesn't matter we're predictable – can work. It can be successful if you have the horses. And it will be more consistently successful with the horses than other offenses that are based more on an unpredictable, riskier offensive approach. But when they don't have enough horses they're going to get beaten, and it's going to look like opposing defenses and opposing defensive coaches have scouted you well and out-coached you badly, like against Arizona. And you need a good number of horses. Heck, UCLA has three of the most successful horses in college football this year – Drew Olson, Maurice Drew, and Marcedes Lewis – and they still aren't enough horses to get it done with this offensive philosophy against a poor team like Arizona.

That's why this season was so critical. Dorrell needed to put together a big season to get his recruiting rolling so he could get those horses. It looked like he was going to pull it off, with so many horse-type recruits ready to jump on board, with the 8-0 season being a huge contributing part of it. We'll see if he can finish off his recruiting class strongly, and get the horses. Because of their coaching approach, if he does get the horses, UCLA will be better than other programs that get similar quality recruits. If he doesn't, UCLA will be worse than other programs that get similar quality recruits.

There is another element to this coaching philosophy that so unnerves the crank, because it really is predicated completely on a blue-type mindset. The offense is one based on faith – that if we just keep trying to execute well we'll eventually break through. It maintains that faith no matter the reality of the situation. It embodies Dorrell himself, and he's chanted it over the last three years like a mantra, particularly in that first year when the offense was horrendous. It's why Dorrell earned respect from so many, including some cranks. He would say, "Have faith. The offense will work. Trust me." And when it did this year, and even last year, many tended to conclude that he might know what he's doing. But what's so unnerving to the crank is that it's clear, no matter if Dorrell gets the horses he needs for this philosophy to succeed, he's one of the guys up there in the restaurant thinking positive thoughts. And you can see that mindset translate to the field. When UCLA is down 28-0, there still isn't a great deal of urgency to the offense. Yeah, in this game, they went to the 2-minute offense and threw the ball more, but they still only have those predictable plays in their arsenal to choose from.

So, most of us sane fans haven't thrown ourselves over the cliff, in terms of the season or the program. But after this game it's very difficult to be sitting up in that restaurant sipping wine, thinking everything's okay.

For Dorrell's long-term philosophy to be successful, he needs to end the season on a strong note. Many bought in and gave him credit for the unwavering – and sometimes seemingly unjustified – faith he's had in his program and his offense. He now needs to maintain some of the good vibes he generated from that 8-0 run. If he doesn't, and the season goes completely on the rocks and finishes at 8-4, he could see his recruiting go over the cliff, too, and recruiting this season is the key to his future at UCLA.

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